For 23 years, the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival has brought live jazz music and education to the East Lansing community, showcasing both nationally recognized and local artists.
The 2019 festival served more than a gathering of bands. For its closing act, Root Doctor, it served as a homecoming celebration.
“We’ve been playing for 30 years in the area,” said band manager Marge Mooney. “We have a lot of family and a lot of friends that we’ve acquired through playing in the area, so it was exciting to have us back in town.”
This year marks the 30 year anniversary of the band, which formed in Lansing in 1989. Since then, Root Doctor has been touring and performing throughout the state. But performing in their hometown always holds a special place in their hearts, especially in this retrospective 30-year anniversary.
“We live here, so people are always greeting us and they know who we are,” said Mooney. “People will tell us how we’ve impacted their lives… It makes you feel good.”
When asked to return to the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival for a second year, the band was humbled by the opportunity.
“We got asked to be in it, and it’s always an honor,” said Mooney. “We played last year, but the weather wasn’t nearly as good so it was a small crowd. This year was a much nicer experience, more people involved.”
Mooney’s husband, Freddie Cunningham, is the “soul” and lead vocalist of Root Doctor. Even after 30 years of touring with the band, the thrill of performing in East Lansing again was undeniable.
“From what I’ve seen, when we play in East Lansing there seems to be quite a mix of older and younger people, and they seem to enjoy the music one as much as the other,” said Cunningham. “It feels wonderful to be able to go out in the community and enjoy the people, and enjoy them enjoying you. It’s a two-way street. If they don’t react or they don’t give us any feedback to what we were doing, we’re not doing our job. And we have been tremendously well received. I’m very grateful for that.”
This “two-way street,” of the audience engaging with the band engaging with the audience, took on a new meaning for Cunningham at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. Not only were fans that have followed the band for years energized and dancing, but he saw his music resonate with a new generation of fans.
Cunnningham said the toughest demographic his band to reach is ages 15 to 20 years old. At the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, this demographic was highly represented, which stood out to him as the highlight of the festival.
“That is a hard sell, that age group,” said Cunningham, “and there were quite a few of them dancing and having a good time. I enjoyed that as much as they enjoyed the band. They seemed to be enjoying us quite a bit, and we enjoy that.”
The positive reception from this difficult to reach demographic, along with the long-established fans from their hometown, reminds Cunningham of why he keeps performing, despite having been retired for 15 years.
“The band and the whole community has been behind us right from the start,” said Cunningham. “We’ve had good reactions from community leaders and people in Lansing… Had we not had such a tremendous reception and following, I don’t know exactly what would have happened. It’s been a very good 30 year ride.”
One such community leader, Heather Surface, coordinated the 2019 Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, and spoke highly of Root Doctor: “They’re a really great local band. They’re pretty popular… and one we really enjoy.”
Surface said she hopes the festival promoted an underrepresented style of music.
“Jazz is not always the most prominent music style in this day and age,” she said, “and we want to share it with people.” In addition, she hopes that in bringing the music and people together, that “people walked away with… a sense of community.”
For Root Band, the sense of community has been prominent since the beginning, and only reaffirmed at the 2019 Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.
“Lansing has a huge family of music. The musicians all get along,” said Mooney. “It’s really nice to be in the family of the music in Lansing—the jazz, the Americana, the blues and rock. A lot of people know each other, and they’re always available to help people. There’s benefits all the time, and bands are always right there to help each other and the community. It’s inspiring.”